Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan is published by William Morrow. It tells the story of my adventures with Atticus M. Finch, a little dog of some distinction. You can also find our column in the NorthCountry News.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Every Rock, Every Stream . . .

In the first half of the nineteenth century some of the world’s greatest landscape painters came to the White Mountains. Some of them would be the nucleus of the Hudson River School of painters and none was more significant than New York-based Thomas Cole. He was one of the first who saw these great peaks as a place to retreat to where an ever-changing world couldn’t reach as easily and saw the need to protect it. 

One of my favorite Cole quotes states “Many a mountain stream and rock has its legend, worthy of the poet’s pen or the painter’s pencil.”  

During the first few years of our hiking up here, starting a decade ago, I wouldn’t have appreciated Cole’s words as much. I was more intent on getting to the top of each peak to celebrate the view, but also our accomplishment. You could say my appreciation for this region was tarnished by my ego that wanted to go faster, farther, and do more, more, more.

But then something happened and things changed. I somehow came to the conclusion during all my hurry to collect personal achievement that I’d lost touch with how much I was missing along the way to prove how strong and fast and accomplished I was. During our first visits up here, when Atticus led me along twisting paths and across rocky streams, there was a buzz of excitement whenever we entered the woods. That’s all it took, to leave one world and enter another. There was an innocence found along the trails. Oh, how I loved leaving a busier Massachusetts’ life behind to get “lost” in the woods.  It almost felt like I was playing hooky. As the world I knew rushed ever onward back home, Atticus and I were sitting by streams, enjoying the breeze and the shade of the forest, and the way the sun glistened through the green canopy to create the illusion of diamonds and jewels in the flowing water.  

Back in Newburyport, back running my newspaper after a few days up here, I’d often mentally return to those little breaks by the streams, or those moments when I’d stop pushing through the woods and just breathe in the clean air as the trees towered around us and I felt small but also like I belonged as Mother Nature wrapped her arms around me.  

For the past seven years I’ve rejected the mania I was caught up in and decided to enjoy the mountains more for what they meant to me personally, instead of trying to keep up with others who were also into achieving something. And as soon as I let go of the ego in my hiking, I learned to appreciate each walk in the woods, whether it was twenty minutes or twenty miles.

Now, here we are several years later and Atticus is thirteen. He’s still quite active, but he’s retired from his hiking days, for the most part. There are still mornings when the air is cool and fresh and inviting when he decides he still wants to go “up,” and so we do. But I never expect it anymore. This has allowed me to fully appreciate what Thomas Cole said about “many a mountain stream or rock…”

These days I find myself marveling at what nature has provided. Now, instead of hurrying to the next checkpoint, we can sit for an hour in a woodsy valley watching red squirrels and their twitching tails, listening to the industrious woodpeckers (who pay no attention to us whatsoever), holding the tiniest toad in the palm of my hand for closer study, or simply noticing the leaves twist and dance in the wind.  

It’s funny, isn’t it? No matter how much we dream of summer in the coldest days of the winter, when it arrives there is never a disappointment. It’s always as good as we imagined it. The seasons don’t disappoint. Nature never fails to live up to its promise. Unlike the world we are creating, things are come better than advertised in the natural world. That’s the way it was with my Newburyport daydreams, too. No matter how perfect I saw things to be up here, the reality exceeded the fantasy.  

This morning a young bear was busying himself with something under a tree. He had no idea we were within twenty feet of him watching his rump twist and turn while he head was down below at the trunk. When he finally sensed us, he turned around with a look of shock and started to run off. Perhaps it was because Atticus and I were sitting, and not chasing him, or something else altogether, but after five quick steps, the bear looked over his shoulder and stopped as well. He watched us, always ready to run, but he never did. And we sat taking him in, taking in everything around him.  He would eventually move on, but at no hurry and as he lingered, we couldn’t get enough of him.

These are the things I never did see before. I think we’d be moving so quickly forward that the animals stayed hidden because of all of our noise and rambunctiousness.  

The other day I heard from a woman who was new to hiking. She wanted to know if I had any advice for a novice. I told her to do her own thing and not get caught up in lists or what everyone else is doing. “Do what makes you happy. Take the gifts the mountains are offering you specifically and appreciate them.” Then I shared the Thomas Cole quote with her.

The mountaintops are very grand, but the rocks and streams along the way, they are pretty special too.  

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Surprised By Joy

There are moments I am surprised by joy, even on days when I am already happy. It seems to me that these periodic bursts of bliss are tied into nature. Such was the case this morning as we walked the woods below White Horse Ledge along a spider web of trails crisscrossing the Bryce Path. 
Although early, a hint of the warmth to come later in the day could be found in the sultry scent of the forest. It’s a musky delight that comes from the earth and trees and the slightest (almost imperceptible) bit of haze in the air.  It’s like leaning into a lover and finding the hint of perfume on the nape of her neck. The woods still felt cool, but I could tell it wouldn’t be that way for long.
A gentle breeze stirred loose pine needles and sent them tumbling down to earth around us. Atticus stopped as if to inhale the scent of a wild animal every now and then.  The dirt underfoot wasn’t damp, but it wasn’t dry either. The best way I can describe the coming of the day’s heat is the same way I’d describe the coming of a storm in late afternoon. The subtle shift in electrons, the receptors in our skin that allow us to feel atmospheric changes, and, of course, the smell of it all. 
To be afoot in a forest to witness this change has a primitive appeal to it. It had me reflecting on Thoreau’s, “The savage in man is never quite eradicated.” And this had me thinking how grateful I was to have some of that savage still within me. 
As has been his style lately, Atticus tailed behind, unlike the first ten years of our hiking together. It’s his age. He still enjoys the trails but the pace is different. He rarely takes the lead, and that only happens when it’s cool or else he wants to make sure we take a certain trail.
When we came upon the Bryce Path a second time, he surprised me by taking a left turn and heading up toward the saddle that sits humbly between Cathedral and Whitehorse ledges. It’s a short section of trail, but steep enough to make you stop, grab hold of a tree on occasion, and gulp for air, and then gulp down some water as well.
In that saddle, which has a feel of the medieval to it, with its pockmarked sign slightly leaning to the right, one almost feels transported to the days of old when knights were horseback would come trotting by, the air was thicker, but still refreshing enough to be pleasant.  We made for the top of Whitehorse Ledge, the taller of the two, and the one that is private because you cannot drive to the top of it. I was pleasantly surprised to see Atticus bounce along the climb, looking back over his shoulder for me, stopping every so often to wait for me whenever I rested.
Halfway from the saddle to the summit, we came to a ledge where we have sat many times in the past, often watching a full moon rise above the eastern horizon. Below us was the emerald green of Echo Lake and across the busying valley sat the mountains of the Green Hill Preserve. The air was denser, the temperature rising. But gosh, how it felt grand to be out there in the aging day, following my aging friend.
Once on top we shared the view and some water. Then I paused and thought of my friend Annie who is in Sloan Kettering today, hoping she remains cancer free after seven months off treatment. A few prayers were sprinkled over the valley and sent high above. Then, without any longer delay, Atticus was on his way again, curling round the backside of the ledge, on to the southern boundary, and eventually reaching the forest floor after a rumble through the boulder field. 
When we reached the car, we were both happy to have been out there, but also happy to be done. The drive home with windows wide open was a blissful reward.  Now to be home writing about it, with the air conditioner going, is another. That’s savage within me is taking a backseat to the civilized man now as I sit at my old writing desk and Atticus snores contentedly nearby. 
We stopped peak-bagging several years ago, about the time I decided to count experiences instead of mountaintops. That’s when we set about hiking for the beauty of it, letting our desires take us instead of following the strict orders of one list or another. Now in this summer of no expectations – due to Atti’s age I often say he’s retired – I am surprised by joy more often than ever. Each walk in the woods, whether it is half mile or five miles, comes as a gift. Nothing is taken for granted. We enjoy it all, and luxuriate whenever possible – especially when we come to streams where we wade and Atticus drinks and it feels a bit like heaven after a good walk through a forest which is now greener than I could have imagined it being back in the naked cold of winter.
On days such as this I realize we’ve come to what may be the most appreciated hiking chapter of our time together. It’s the one where so little is expected and so much is appreciated. It’s a time for us, and not others. To walk in the woods because of the love of it, and the passion our feet feel as we walk slowly and deliberately, at times surprised by joy.